Rancho Deluxe

When Argentinian polo player and St. Regis Connoisseur Nacho Figueras set about creating a 30-acre ranch outside Buenos Aires two years ago, his thoughts turned to Cuadra San Cristóbal, the iconic equestrian estate created in 1968 by the late, great Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán. “I have a thing for architecture,” says Figueras. “And I love San Cristóbal – in particular Barragán’s reflective pools.”


For architecture lovers, no visit to Mexico City is complete without a pilgrimage to Cuadra San Cristóbal. The famously pink-hued 7.5-acre property in the north of the capital has inspired artists, designers and architects for 50 years. In 2016, Louis Vuitton traveled there to a shoot an advertising campaign, mustering horses as extras; American fashion designer Michael Kors and shoe brand Nine West followed; and this spring, to coincide with the annual Zona Maco Art Fair, New York-based artist Sean Scully held an exhibition there.


That was the first time the compound had been used to host art, yet many see San Cristóbal as an artwork in itself, its brilliant pink, red and purple walls reflected in two sculptural pools. The creator of this masterpiece, architect Luis Barragán, was a strict catholic with a an equally strict aesthetic. He was also a horse lover, and San Cristóbal, with its delicate fountains, shaded courtyards and elegant stable blocks, has an almost spiritual aura. It was this feeling of calm and tranquility that Figueras wanted to recreate in his own stables.


Figueras, who had visited the Mexican estate many times, hired Argentinean architect Juan Ignacio Ramos to conjure up a striking modernist home for his 44 world-class polo ponies. “I wanted a place that was practical, yet as inspiring as an art museum,” he explains. And while it resembles a living sculpture, connected by concrete, pools and nature, the Figueras Polo Stables is, it should be stressed, also a fully functioning breeding center.


“Seeing our vision come true, and our beloved horses in a place that few could dream about, was a great moment,” says Figueras, who spent three years completing the ambitious project. Oblivious to the architectural pedigree of their elegant surroundings, his pampered beasts graze on a lush grass-topped roof and drink from sculptural pools before bedding down at night. “One of my favorite things to do is to sit on the stable roof at sunset with my friends and a bottle of wine,” Figueras adds. “When you’re up there, you forget about anywhere else.”


Ramos used a palette of exposed concrete and local hardwoods, which are weathering gracefully, while the tack room resembles a gallery space. Near the artfully displayed trophies, saddles and bridles, a monograph of Japanese architect Tadao Ando sits on a coffee table.


Ando is another of Figueras’ favorites and Cerro Pelon, the ranch he created for fashion designer Tom Ford in Santa Fe, was another source of inspiration. Less than a decade old, Cerro Pelon is now on the market for $75 million. In owning what is New Mexico’s most luxurious private property, its new buyer will possess 20,000 acres of untamed countryside, an Ando-designed ranch house and modernist stables for eight horses, plus indoor and outdoor riding tracks. There’s also a landing strip and hangar for a private plane, a reflecting pool, a tennis court, two guest houses and a home and office building for a ranch manager. A film set, Silverado Movie Town, built in 1985 as the set for Silverado and many a Western thereafter, is also part of the plot.


Stable blocks can make good homes for humans too. The no-frills template of these agricultural outbuildings – the lack of decorative detailing and an uncomplicated layout – lends itself to stylish, pared-back living. And such is the need for nature among our equine companions, there’s also the potential to go off-grid. Madrid architects Studio Ábaton converted a crumbling stone stable in the middle of nowhere in western Spain into a family home. Heating is provided by solar panels and the property relies on two nearby streams for its water. Limestone floors, concrete walls and iron beams coexist with well-worn stone and weather-beaten wood.


Similarly remote is Crackenback Stables in the Snowy Mountains of southeastern Australia. Sydney-based Casey Brown Architects redefined the classic corrugated shed to create a two-bedroom property with staff accommodation and stables for five horses. Wrapped in a shiny metal shell, its futuristic form has garnered countless design awards since it was completed in 2015. Meanwhile, on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, London-based Seth Stein Architects and local practice Watson Architecture + Design have teamed up to create an equally striking stable block using local rammed earth and Tasmanian oak. It seems that providing architecturally sophisticated shelters for our four-legged equine friends is a trend that’s here to stay.


Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City




Nacho Figueras' modernist polo ranch uses reflective pools to create a sense of elegance and tranquility



The Micro-bag

Carrying a micro-bag is not a fashion to follow if you’re a woman who normally carries everything but the kitchen sink about with her. But this is a trend that even the most practical are swooning over because, well, this season’s bags – like the one pictured, from Tod’s – are just so adorable. Not only are the mini-, micro- and nano-bags about the size of play-bags that many of us might have carried about as girls, several have also been designed to look wonderfully playful, too, shaped like elephants, embroidered with bold fruit and flower emblems, and adorned with sparkles. In short, they’re fun. Not every fashion house has focused on frivolity, though. Many designers have created a must-have mini-bag that’s a scaled-down version of an old favorite, with all the functionality and proportions of its original. The Hermès Constance Micro Bag, for instance, has all the hallmarks of the larger model, with dual compartments, elegant hand-stitching and a palladium clasp – but at a fifth of its size. The Lady Dior, too, has spawned two miniature versions: one five inches wide, and the second six inches. Surprisingly, scaling down from a full-size bag is easy to get used to. Once you’ve redefined what counts as essentials (goodbye water bottle and notebook; hello credit card, lipstick, phone and keys), micro-bags are a weight off your shoulders – literally. They’re also a great way to get your hands on a designer bag, at a palatable price point. What’s there not to coo at? tods.com

The Houseplant

Greenery has been a motif on the fashion catwalks for the past few years, but it’s only recently that fashionistas have started to bring real tropicalia indoors and to grow plants themselves. Why their sudden enthusiasm? Not only because plants enhance a modishly midcentury interior – especially that 1970s stalwart, the cheeseplant (pictured), or because city-dwellers now understand the ways plants can improve their health and environment, believes American gardening expert Tovah Martin. It’s a deeper reason: a need to be rooted. “Everyone yearns to play in the dirt, she says. “Besides, a houseplant is therapeutic. It gives you something to nurture.” One difference between these gardeners and their green-fingered grandparents, notes Michelle Slatalla in her blog Gardenista, is the type of plants they’re growing. While in the 1950s and ’60s it might have been a violet, in the 1970s a spider plant in a macramé hanger (currently enjoying a comeback), today’s indoor gardeners prefer architectural flora that requires very little care –cacti and succulents that create a cool Californian vibe; or the fiddle-leaf fig, which is currently the fashionable choice of hip boutiques from Marimekko in Finland to Céline in Europe. The key to creating the right look, captured on hashtags such as #urbanjungle, #monsteramonday or #plantgang? Pick the plant as you would a piece of furniture, says Slatalla, and then arrange in clusters. “The look you want is a living work of art.” conservatoryarchives.co.uk

The Dress Slipper

Originally designed as a house shoe for Victorian men hosting formal dinners, or to wear with a silk dressing gown for elegant evenings chez soi, the dress slipper is enjoying a remarkable revival among fashionable men. Almost 200 years after Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, elevated it from a practical, mud-free indoor shoe to a piece of footwear fashioned from velvet and lined with quilting, it has made its way from palaces and mansions to the catwalks of Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana. Although Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable teamed their black slippers with tuxedos, today the shoes are just as likely to be worn with jeans. Some stylists are going so far as to suggest that the slipper is the ultimate shoe for all times of day, worn with a white t-shirt and jeans for casual occasions and a navy polka-dot tie and shirt square for a business-casual look. For those who fall in love with the style, there are models for all seasons, from navy blue suede to a dashing red velvet. The slipper pictured here was created for Jack’s Club, a series of St. Regis pop-ups in honor of John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV, the founder of St. Regis. For those who want something a little more rock ’n’ roll, shoemaker GJ Cleverley even offers to embroider a skull and crossbones on its velvet shoes. Unusual? Yes. But then, if you are going to leave the house in slippers, as Esquire magazine’s Jonathan Evans puts it, “You want to feel a little bit louche, and yes, a bit rakish. Isn’t that the point?”

The Folding Bike

We live in an era in which the savvy CEO is more likely to turn up at a board meeting on a bicycle than in a chauffeur-driven limo. The bike, after all, projects agility and all the fresh, un-starchy energy of a start-up. And folding bikes are emerging as a particularly popular way to get about, especially for commuters. They’re not as cumbersome as regular bikes; most train companies let you board with one, folded up; and they’re small enough to tuck under a desk at work. The problem with most folding bikes, until now, has been the time they take to unfold (several minutes) and their weight (mostly between 20 lbs and 40 lbs). In the past year, however, buoyed by the popularity of bicycles in big cities, several manufacturers have put their minds to creating the perfect commuting bike. Which is what? According to online magazine cyclingweekly.com, a bicycle with tires between 1.7 and 2 inches wide, which grip the road well; internal hub gears, which cut down on maintenance; good brakes and easy-to-fold parts. The new Hummingbird (photographed here) ticks all the boxes. Launched via Kickstarter, and available since May 2017, this is the lightest folding bike on earth, at 16.5 lbs. Made of carbon fiber, it was manufactured using techniques created for professional motorsport – this is a bike that its designers can justifiably claim is made to Formula 1 standards. Its folding mechanisms allow it to be unfolded in five seconds, its Hummlock “safety pin” keeps it all together, its four-speed gears allow it to be ridden on varied terrains and its Tektro brakes are powerful enough to stop quickly in a city. The only extras one might ask for are mudguards and a carbon belt drive – but those, Hummingbird says, are in the pipeline. We didn’t ask about a bell. hummingbirdbike.com


A clever composite made of layers of fine wood glued together, plywood has been used since Egyptian times. Although its easy-to-mold forms were widely put to use in the early 20th century to make boats, furniture, houses and even planes – such as Amelia Earhart’s famous trans-Atlantic Lockheed Vega 5B – it was only after World War II that experimental furniture designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Alvar and Aino Aalto recognized that in plywood they had a material that, when it was steamed, could be molded into curvaceous shapes. By the 1950s, Eames chairs, with their molded plywood seats, had become synonymous with midcentury modernism and the Aaltos’ curvaceous walls had changed public perceptions of plywood in architecture. Today, our love affair with plywood has been reignited, as designers once again appreciate the beautiful forms, from skateboards to chandeliers, that can be made from this most humble of materials. Product designers such as Lozi have started to create elegant plywood pieces for the home, from lamps to planters, and furniture-makers such as Branca Lisboa have taken inspiration from natural shapes such as sea-shells to construct super-modern seats created with “bones” of steamed ply. It’s even being used to create the curvaceous walls of cutting-edge stands at art shows such as Art Basel, Miami. Why the return to fashion? Not only does plywood’s simple honesty fit well with the pared-back aesthetic of the 21st century, but the marriage of form and function in such sculptural pieces as the 1939 Isokon Penguin Donkey bookshelf (pictured here) is irresistible to those living in small homes – even to aesthetes who might never before have considered buying a mass-produced, inexpensive veneered composite. isokonplus.com

Mrs Astor Invites

For almost four decades, New York society – then the world’s most rigid and exclusive – was ruled by one woman, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, known throughout New York as the Mrs Astor. Her prestige was such that to be invited to Mrs Astor’s annual ball, invariably on the third Monday in January, was to be “in” society; not to be asked was to live in outer darkness. Or so it seemed to the many aspirants to her ballroom.


These were largely from the group known as the “Bouncers” or nouveaux riches. Huge fortunes had been made in the aftermath of the Civil War and those who had made them – or rather, their wives – wanted to display their new wealth in the most prestigious place of all, Caroline Astor’s social circle. But extreme wealth did not help towards social inclusion; the Vanderbilts, almost as rich as the Astors and frequently with grander houses, were firmly outside the pale. At least two, preferably more, generations were needed to disinfect a fortune from murky origins – and Commodore Vanderbilt, the combative, shrewd, poorly educated, foul-mouthed founder of the family’s wealth, was still very much alive. He would not have been permitted to cross the threshold of Caroline’s drawing room – nor indeed would he have wanted to.


The Astor family fortune was founded in the 1800s by German immigrant John Jacob Astor, and by the time of Caroline’s marriage had become a byword for wealth, magnificent houses and also hotels – with a reputation for superb hospitality which would ultimately reach its most lasting monument in the splendid St. Regis hotel built by her son John Jacob Astor IV in the early 1900s.


Caroline herself came from “old” New York society, an upper echelon formed of the descendants of the original English and Dutch settlers, known as the Knickerbockers (from the short trousers – we would call them culottes – worn by the early Dutch). The Knickerbocker world was one of social propriety, of sober, dignified people living in sober, dignified houses.


They were lawyers, businessmen, with wives who dressed expensively but discreetly: once married, they dressed in dark colors and no Knickerbocker wife would dream of immediately wearing one of the Worth dresses so regularly sent out to her from Paris. It would be left, layered in tissue paper and probably still slung in the trunk in which it had crossed the Atlantic, until the words “latest fashion” (subtext: as worn by the nouveaux riches) could no longer be applied to it. Knickerbocker families married into each other’s families, and dined – at a suitably early hour – in each other’s houses. They were a tribe, and a tribe that jealously guarded its exclusivity.


But where the custom of others in that circle was to use two names, often their husband’s, as in “Mrs John Jacob Astor” or “Mrs August Belmont”, Caroline had persuaded her husband to drop his middle name, Backhouse, perhaps because backhouse was an old name for an outdoor privy. Besides, being known simply as “Mrs Astor” underlined Caroline’s regal status.


Mrs Astor Greeting Guests at her Ball

Age of elegance

Mrs Astor (center) greets guests at one of her sumptuous Gilded Age balls

 (Getty Images)

She had achieved this unchallenged position partly through her own personality and ambition, and partly with the assistance of the man who became Grand Vizier to her Sultana. This was Ward McAllister, a socially ambitious southerner who had realized that unless steps were taken to mold society into an acceptable model, it would be overwhelmed by the flood of new money now pouring into New York.


McAllister had managed to blend the old and the new by the simple expedient of picking what he and a coterie of friends saw as the most socially desirable from both groups – half a dozen each of the Knickerbockers and the most presentable Bouncer men – with these 12 as “patriarchs” launching a series of exclusive dances, with tickets strictly limited. Their exclusiveness made them an immediate success and the struggle to acquire tickets to these events was intense and often bitter, as only those who passed stringent criteria made it. And in Caroline Astor he saw the only person fit to rule this new élite.


Caroline’s great asset was her dignity, closely followed by her discretion – she is never known to have made a controversial remark. She could be friendly, but never intimate, and she never confided. Another woman might have found it difficult to live down the behavior of a husband such as Caroline’s, for William Backhouse Astor was known to be a heavy drinker and an even more voracious womanizer.


Fortunately, both of these pursuits largely took place at sea, as he spent much of his time aboard his yacht, The Ambassadress (at that time the largest private yacht in the world). As rumors of boatloads of chorus girls and a hold full of whiskey swirled around New York, Mrs Astor would smile serenely and remark – if anyone dared ask about him – that the sea air was so good for dear William, while regretting that she could not accompany him as she was such a poor sailor herself. For what Mrs Astor did not want to see, she did not see.


In person, she was of medium height, plump, plain and olive-skinned, with black hair (later a black wig) and smallish gray eyes that missed nothing. She favored dark colors – usually black but often a regal purple – and wore her diamonds rather as an idol bedecked for worship. At one dance, for instance, a diamond stomacher glittered on her blue velvet dress, in her black hair was a diamond tiara with diamond stars, several diamond necklaces studded with immense collet diamonds hung round her neck, clusters of diamond bracelets wreathed the wrists of her long white kid gloves and from her ears hung long diamond drop earrings.


The years of Caroline’s reign were known as the Gilded Age, so immense were the fortunes made and spent. In the huge mansions along Fifth Avenue were marble mantelpieces, Gobelins tapestries, bronzes, sculptures and paintings swept up from Europe, oriental carpets, crystal chandeliers and French furniture. Between four and five of a summer afternoon, elegant carriages drawn by glossy horses carried women in silk dresses and elaborate hats, bowing as they passed each other; in the winter there was the same parade in horse-drawn sleighs in Central Park. At parties, the house smothered with flowers, the favors were antique ivory fans, gold snuff boxes or sapphire stock pins, with hundred-dollar notes stamped with the host’s name wrapped round the cigarettes by each place.


But the highlight of the entire social year was Caroline Astor’s ball. Its keynote was lavishness and ceremony – you did not go there to enjoy yourself, but to be seen there. The huge mansion, filled with flowers, blazed with light, and the specially favored were invited to sit with Caroline on the red velvet sofa from which she surveyed the ballroom.


At her parties there was often another lavish and unusual feature – a midnight supper. The dancing would be stopped, little tables would appear as if by magic (probably via an elevator in her son John Jacob “Jack” Astor’s house next door; the two houses could be interconnected when necessary) and a sumptuous supper would be served by servants in green plush coats and white breeches, their buttons sporting the motto the Astors had bestowed upon themselves: “Semper Fidelis”. After this, some guests would go home, others would continue dancing and the night would end with the more traditional early morning supper.


Bouncer women outside Mrs Astor’s sacred circle of acquaintance would go to any lengths to acquire an invitation, pleading through a third party, trying to persuade Ward McAllister they had a grandmother of impeccable lineage and, of course, giving dinners, musicales and dances themselves, which were duly written up in the social columns of the day.


Others, to avoid the stigma of not being asked, would get their doctors to prescribe a trip into the mountains for their health’s sake or go to the even greater length of leaving the country – after all, it sounded much more elegant to say: “I’m taking my daughters to be educated in France,” than “Mrs Astor hasn’t asked me to her ball.” They felt the Astor ban with double force when it came to launching their debutante daughters, for going to the same dancing class as the children of the Astor circle did not mean you got asked to the same balls later.


But the excluded wives of the nouveaux riches quickly discovered that in Europe these daughters could lead to a “back door” way into the Astor set. Beautiful, superbly dressed and hugely rich by European standards, such girls were sought-after brides among indigent aristocrats – in England, a succession of bad harvests, loss of labor to industrialized cities and the import of cheap grain had halved the income of most landowners. And even Mrs Astor would not refuse to receive the mother-in-law of a marquis. As I discovered when writing my book The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, in the period between 1870 and 1914, 454 American girls married titled Europeans, one hundred of them British aristocrats, with 60 of this hundred marrying eldest sons – a phenomenal amount by any standards.


Staying at or near the top was a constant struggle. Even in the Astor clan there was in-fighting. For years, Caroline’s nephew, William Waldorf Astor, fought a running battle with his aunt to try and position his wife Mamie as the Mrs Astor – after all, he, William Waldorf, was the eldest son’s eldest son, so his wife should hold this position by right. But nothing could dislodge Caroline, even when William Waldorf had his father’s house torn down and replaced by an enormous hotel, designed to overshadow his aunt’s mansion beside it. Her only comment was the icy put-down: “There’s a glorified tavern next door.<” Eventually, in disgust, William Waldorf left the US for England in 1891, saying that “America is no place for a gentleman”.


“I know of no art, profession or work for women more taxing on mental resources than being a leader of society,” said Alva Vanderbilt, who would become just that by dint of being one the few people to outwit Caroline Astor on her own ground. Her first step was building an enormous mansion on Fifth Avenue and filling it with treasures. Then she announced that she would give a housewarming costume ball, with the guest of honor her great friend Consuelo Yznaga, now married to the Duke of Manchester’s heir, Lord Mandeville. Society, avid to see inside the new house and meet a future duchess, eagerly accepted her invitations. It would be a splendid evening, with guests decked out as mandarins or 18th century courtiers – as shown in the photographs taken on the night, which are now in the collection of The Museum of the City of New York.


Suddenly Caroline Astor, accustomed to being asked to everything, realized she did not have an invitation – and her beloved daughter, who had been practicing her cotillion for months, would be unable to perform it. When she let this be known, Alva, like Mrs Astor educated in France and conscious of the niceties of etiquette, declared that she could not make such an approach to Mrs Astor because the rule was that the senior lady must first have called on the junior one.


At once, Mrs Astor dispatched her footman to leave a card on Alva and, almost by return, an invitation was sent down Fifth Avenue. Mrs Astor attended the ball, saying afterwards: “We have no right to exclude those whom the growth of this great country has brought forward, provided they are not vulgar in speech and appearance. The time has come for the Vanderbilts.” They were in.


It was not until 1902 that Caroline Astor was finally toppled. Her nemesis was 32-year-old Grace Vanderbilt, originally one of her protégées, who outflanked her in a ruthlessly cunning move that resulted in Grace, rather than Caroline, entertaining the Kaiser’s popular younger brother to dinner. It was the coup de grace and Caroline knew it. The shock wave traveled around New York and, like all those women who had tried and failed to receive an invitation to her ball, she left for Europe.


Or, as the gossip magazine of the day gleefully put it: “Mrs Astor will sail before the dinner takes place.”


The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Your address: The St. Regis New York

[Art Gallery in the Astor Mansion, 34th Street and 5th Avenue.]

Room with a view

The vast ballroom of the Astor mansion on 34th Street and 5th Avenue

 (Museum of the City of New York)

Mrs.William B. Astor in Portrait

The best of times

A photograph of Mrs Astor taken in 1900

(Getty Images)


The medicinal properties of charcoal have long been known: both Hippocrates (in 400 BC) and Pliny the Elder (in AD 50) described it being used to treat ailments from rotting wounds to vertigo. What the savants might never have predicted, though, is the sudden popularity of burnt vegetable matter in the food scene of the 21st century. Venture into hip restaurants from Shanghai to Houston and there’s sure to be a dish into which charcoal has been added – whether it’s a smoothie, a macaroon, (like those pictured left), or a kuro burger – which, if you aren’t familiar with the Japanese dish, comprises a blackened bun, a meat patty, a sliver of black cheese and black squid-ink sauce. It’s even making its way into water jugs – single pieces of blackened matter inserted into the bottom to help purify their contents. According to supplier Mark Parr, who provides chefs with charcoal both to cook with and to cook over, the type of plant matter from which it’s made can significantly alter the flavor. Alder charcoal imparts a sugary sweetness, he says, while oak’s heavily flavored smoke is perfect for cooking and smoking salmon. The bad news? Although charcoal is often prescribed as a medication in hospitals – the porous substance isn’t processed by the stomach, but can soak up poisons and toxins while passing through the body – it has little benefit to health when eaten in small quantities. “Activated charcoal, which is found in water filters to remove impurities, is an effective internal cleanser in quantity,” says nutritionist Angela Dowden. “But in the tiny amount you find in foods? Unlikely.” Never mind. The fashionably dark dishes look wonderfully dramatic, and can garner thousands more likes for us on Instagram. That in itself can make us feel a whole lot better.

Sands of Time

Travel and the Middle East were made for one another. Over the centuries – and no region on earth this side of Africa has been around for so many of them – the land has been criss-crossed by Nabateans, Romans, Crusaders and pilgrims. Its dunes and deserts have enticed writers and wanderers, from Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton to TE Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), while its Byzantine mosaics are still points of pilgrimage for modern travelers.


Having only ever studied Jordan – as Edom – during the course of a theology degree back in the mists of the 1980s, I thought it was high time I joined the caravan of explorers, mystics, dreamers and divines. They went on foot and by camel. I used these too, and a horse, and a nice, comfortable, air-conditioned 4WD. My mission: to see the ancient – and to arrive at the modern, and make contemporary sense of these biblical lands.


I crossed the Allenby Bridge from the West Bank behind buses heading to Mecca. Behind me, Jericho; beneath me, the River Jordan; a little way along on my right, Mount Nebo, from which Moses was allowed a view of the Promised Land. Not bad for a start. From here, the Jordanian river Kazem followed the magnificently dubbed though meandering King’s Highway south, following the contours of the Dead Sea Rift. At Madaba, I saw a large fragment of a map of the Holy Land made for an unknown Christian community in the 6th century. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and Nile Delta were all clearly depicted. What could be more stirring to a travel writer than an exquisite map, laid out on the floor of the Byzantine Church of Saint George, linking faith with landmarks and long journeys?


We traveled slowly for 220 miles all the way down to Wadi Rum, passing through arid plains and desert canyons. I saw few major towns and no cities, but plenty of shepherds and goatherds, donkeys and camels, as well as numerous Bedouin encampments. The land was parched and bleak. But wherever a trickle of water persisted, crimson poppies and black lilies – Jordan’s national flower – had burst through the dun crust.


I saw an old steam train left sleeping on the Hejaz railway at Wadi Rum – a southern, narrow-gauge spur of the old Orient Express. Here my path diverged from the great thoroughfares of Arabia as I made for a tented camp at the foot of a sandstone massif. A hot towel and fresh pomegranate juice awaited, as well as a basic if spacious Bedouin tent. Set amid a maze of monolithic rocks, this was to be my home for three nights; the first one began with a beautiful moon and a delicious barbecued lamb and meze supper around an open fire.


Deserts are utterly formless at first, and it takes time to get your bearings. A dawn drive in a sturdy 4WD took me first to a row of towering peaks nicknamed the Seven Pillars of Wisdom after the book of that name by TE Lawrence. There were no roads, but the driver-cum-guide followed ruts in the sand, which took us to high viewpoints, down through broad Martian valleys and into narrow natural cuttings dotted with tiny oases.


In the morning the heat was mild enough to set on short solitary walks. My drivers had the good sense to give me space and time to enjoy the silence, the surreal rockscapes and the play of the light on the mountains. I hiked to see the low-slung redbrick ruins of a Nabatean temple dating from the first or second century AD. The Nabateans were an Arab people who spoke a language related to Aramaic – Jesus’ native tongue – and ran a large trading network across the Levant. As well as inscriptions in their own language, Latin writing has been identified on an altar while marble columns were overlaid with graffiti in a poorly understood proto-Arabic tongue known as Thamudic.


From such sites sprung many European languages, as well as the fundamentals of Western culture. The temple is believed to contain remnants from the 14th century BC, when it was dedicated to two Mesopotamian deities: Hadad, the god of thunder and rain, and Atargatis, goddess of fertility, fruit and foliage. Standing behind one of the low walls and looking out over a plain littered with rocks and tufts of dry grass, I could imagine generations of locals looking up to the cloudless sky, yearning for rain and a few green shoots to feed a goat or camel.


But, lo and behold, just a little way along from the temple were springs bursting from the ground, framed by mint bushes. Close by was another waterhole shaded by green-leaved trees and ferns. In his Seven Pillars, Lawrence recalls pausing here to “taste at last a freshness of moving air and water against my tired skin. It was deliciously cool.


It was indeed, but there was so much else to see. I walked up to an outcrop, and then through another narrow wadi – or ravine – dotted with more pools, before joining the driver and continuing on to the Canyons of Umm Ishrin – the “Mother of Twenty”, supposedly named for 20 Bedouins killed on the mountain, or a mad, bad woman who killed 19 suitors before settling on the twentieth. On several rocks I saw depictions of Lawrence of Arabia, looking suspiciously like Peter O’Toole. Fittingly, the passage of the archaeologist-cum-military man-cum diplomat through these parts is largely shrouded in mystery.


Camels and hot tea welcomed me back to the tented camp, where I was able to shower and sit back and take in the deep peace and the huge dome of the darkening sky. There was electricity, hot water and beer, and my tent had a ceiling, but it still felt right to be in the desert. Little wonder that the most famous book in Arabian history is dedicated to the night – or that dreams figure so prominently in the region’s legends.


The canyons and ravines of Wadi Rum shaped only by weather and age, are a sort of divine overture for my next stop, Petra, where human craft has taken the raw material of sandstone and created one of the world’s true wonders. Desert travelers like to invoke Shelley’s Ozymandias. Well, Petra is an antidote to the expectation of decay. Where there might have been ruins and the scattered sands of time is truly spectacular architecture, carved out of the rocks – or perhaps “into” is more accurate. For this famous city, built as early as the 4th century BCE as Raqmu, the capital of the Nabeatean world, is like the imprint of a powerful imagination that saw shapes where others saw only cliff walls and untidy lumps of dead rock.


The path into the site, known as the Siq or “shaft”, follows a narrow, winding gorge through towering rocks. At times it’s barely ten feet wide, and is narrower at the top than the bottom; as you step from shadow into light, and then back into the murk again, it feels as if it was built for theatrical, rather than defensive, purposes.


On exiting the cleft – a geological fault smoothed by water – you meet with Petra’s stunning centerpiece: the Treasury, or Al-Khazneh in Arabic. You might know the colonnaded Greek-influenced facade from its appearance in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The name refers to a local legend that bandits hid their loot in a stone urn placed high on the upper level. But the building was originally built as a mausoleum and crypt. The wind and seasonal rains have eroded many details but archaeologists have located mythological figures representing the afterlife, as well as dancing Amazons with double axes, and Castor and Pollux (twin brothers from Greek and Roman mythology).


Pliny wrote of Petra’s importance as a trading crossroads. As I walked on to visit dozens of rock-cut tombs, temples and a Roman-style theatre – the Romans occupied the site from 64-3 BCE – I began to get some sense of just how big and permanent, not to mention affluent, it must have seemed to its original residents and travel-weary visitors. Under the noonday sun, the 800 steps up to the Ad-Deir Monastery were slow going but at the top was another beautiful classical facade. Once it would have been a major crossroads linking China with Rome. On the main colonnaded street there was space to think and wonder: for centuries, caravans laden with silk, spices, incense and other exotic wares could be stored and animals rested safely here. Once a tax was paid, the merchants were free to continue their journey west or east.


Though UNESCO-listed Petra receives some 500,000 visitors a year, making it Jordan’s number-one visitor attraction, it’s expansive enough not to feel cramped. Once you’ve seen the major architectural landmarks, your gaze falls on shadows, caves, crevasses and windows offered by rocks that afford surprising vistas over the complex. Too many people rush through; I’d recommend a morning and then a late afternoon, to see how the sun works its own wonders on the sandy rock. You can easily escape the hubbub and the donkey-ride sellers, and there are several cafés and a restaurant serving delicious falafels. You can even pop back after dark for Petra At Night, when thousands of candles are lit in front of the Treasury for a session of music and storytelling.


Over the course of their long stewardship, the Romans diverted most of their lucrative trade routes away from Petra. That’s one of the main reasons it was overlooked even during the age of the Grand Tour. The site celebrated the 200th anniversary of its rediscovery – by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt – in 2012. Those two centuries saw seismic political shifts across the Middle East and the establishment of many new nation states from former tribal territories. Jordan, which became a British protectorate and then gained its full independence in 1948 as the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan (shortened to Jordan the following year) is one of these.


The drive from the ancient capital of the Nabatean empire to its modern capital, Amman, takes only three hours on Highway 15 – the main trunk road. The city sits in a deep bowl, its residential neighborhoods of cream-colored blocks spread over the slopes, with the main commercial centers along the lower reaches. More than four million people live in the fast-growing city (there were only about 5,000 in the 1920s), and the expanding sprawl now stretching over 19 hills, with many suburbs hidden behind the high ridges.


Amman lies close to ’Ain Ghazal, one of the oldest settlements in the near east, and stands on the site of the Greek city of Philadelphia (meaning “brotherly love”. As a Beta city on the global index, a cosmopolitan and liberal cultural center, an important banking hub, and a tourist destination popular with Arab and European travelers, it has risen to prominence with remarkable speed.


The best overview by some way is from the Citadel, a collection of Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad ruins that sits at the top of the city’s highest hill, Jebel Al Qala’a. The most significant extant structures are the 2nd century Temple of Hercules and partially reconstructed Umayyad Palace, but the poetry resides in the juxtaposition of ancient columns, podiums and arches – which act as a series of frames – and the modern apartment blocks beyond. A wonderful breeze made a walk around here late in the afternoon especially pleasant, and as there were only two dozen visitors spread around the extensive site, I could easily find tranquil spots to sit and stare. As at the Tels of Palestine, you have a strong sense of being on top of layered history, of belief systems and world-views that come and go. The feeling was compounded when I had one of those rare epiphany-like travel experiences – when the call to prayer commenced around the city, and live voices and recorded ones overlapped and echoed all around the valley.


There are regular evening festivals and concerts at the Citadel. As they’re the only way to see the site, and those views, after dusk, keep an eye out in the local listings via your concierge.


Down below is a hillside amphitheater from the same period as the temple. But I was ready for some 21st century city life. In Amman, there’s plenty of this, from the American-style eateries, power lunch and realpoliticking rendezvous of the western hotel districts, to the slick coffee shops and trendy bookstores of Rainbow Street, to the throbbing heart of downtown, where you can take your pick between old markets, traditional food stalls – Jordanian beef and pasta, bean dishes and fresh khubz breads are classics of Levantine cuisine – and street traders pulling carts loaded with olives, tomatoes, peppers and fresh juices. At times, its energy reminded me of Cairo, but it’s far less hectic and less dusty. It’s also untouched by mass tourism, a rare thing in a major capital.


The local Carakale microbrewery claims the Sumerians invented beer some 5,000 years ago and it is merely bringing it home. Around Darat al Funun, I found a fabulous contemporary art space. These are not the delights one expects to discover in an Arabian city. In the new Abdali district, two million square meters of office space are being developed to transform Amman, a safe and strategically important city, into a business hub. The blurb declares the project’s aims of “catapulting Amman into the 21st century and placing it on a par with most of the world’s renowned city centers”. Well, from Petra we know what happens to those in the end – but right now, Amman, and Jordan are happening and hopeful.


Your address: The St. Regis Amman





At the end of a narrow gorge, hewn into sandstone cliffs, stands Petra's most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh, known as The Treasury

(© Aurora Photos)



Bedouin man in Petra, Jordan.


Looking out over Petra 

(© Aurora Photos)